Home / Technology / State of the Art: A Crazy Idea for Funding Local News: Charge People for It

State of the Art: A Crazy Idea for Funding Local News: Charge People for It

The plan, for any would-be entrepreneur brave enough to try it, goes like this: Hire some very good journalists; just one or two are O.K. to start. Turn them loose on a large metropolitan area — try San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston or any other city going through waves of change, and whose local press has been gutted by digital disruption.

Have your reporters cover stuff that no one else is covering, and let them ignore stuff that everyone else is covering. Don’t do movie reviews, stock market analysis, Super Bowl coverage or anything else that isn’t local. Instead, emphasize coverage that’s actionable, that residents deem necessary and valuable for short- and long-term planning — especially an obsessive focus on housing and development, transportation, education and local politics.

Package it all in a form that commands daily attention — probably a morning email newsletter — and sprinkle it with a sense of community, like offline and online networking events for readers.

How will you fund all of this? This is the most important part: Shun advertising. Instead, ask readers to pay for it with real money — $ 5 or $ 10 a month, or perhaps even more. It will take time, but if you build it right, you just might create the next great metropolitan news organization.

This plan may sound simplistic, almost like a joke. Wait, Sherlock, your big idea is to create a really good product and charge people money for it? Haven’t people tried this before?

Less than you might think. The short history of digital media is lousy with advertising, which promotes all the wrong incentives for online news — volume over curation, aggregation over original coverage, speed over accuracy.

More recently, there has been a surge in online subscriptions. Netflix is doing it for TV, Spotify for music, and Patreon for podcasters and YouTubers. And many news outlets — big companies like The New York Times and start-ups like The Athletic, which covers sports — are making subscriptions the center of their journalism.

Yet few entrepreneurs have jumped on the subscription bandwagon for local news. The reticence makes sense; local markets are by definition small, and journalism is expensive.

But after studying Ms. Lessin’s and Mr. Thompson’s methods, I suspect there’s a market for subscription-based local coverage. Someone just has to build it.

How? Consider Ms. Lessin’s plan for The Information, the tech news service she started in 2013 after spending eight years at The Wall Street Journal. Back then, online subscriptions seemed antiquated; many companies had experimented with charging users, but most had failed to win large numbers of subscribers, and the big money in media was in ad-supported sites aiming for rapid expansion through viral traffic.

“People thought no one would pay for news, especially tech news,” Ms. Lessin told me last month. “The problem was the news business hadn’t been focused on a key question: How do I deliver a differentiated product that people would pay for?”

Her idea for differentiation was to charge a lot for The Information — a subscription is $ 399 a year, close to what The Wall Street Journal charges for print delivery — but she would offer readers quality instead of volume.

The Information publishes just two or three stories a day, often scoops and analysis, including a handy daily roundup of the most important stories in tech that day.

The effect is like that of a filter, and a necessary one. And The Information has broken many big industry stories, including last year’s news of sexual harassment allegations against the venture capitalist Justin Caldbeck and Roy Price, Amazon’s former entertainment chief.

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